Art and Subjectivity (Part 1)


In 1961, following the publication of Critique of Dialectical Reason, Jean-Paul Sartre was invited to give a lecture at The Gramsci Institute in Rome. The lecture was followed by a lengthy discussion with some of Italy's most prominent Marxist intellectuals, including Galvano Della VolpeEnzo Paci, and Cesare Luporini. The lecture and portions of the ensuing discussion have now been collected in What is Subjectivity?translated by David Broder and Trista Selous. Below, we present the first part of an excerpt from the discussion on questions concerning art and subjectivity. Read Part two here.  

 Sartre and Luporini found themselves in agreement on a point that is, certainly, general in character, but which is nonetheless a substantial one. Namely, they agree in affirming that even though it is not easy to find Marxism’s sense of subjectivity, this is nonetheless something that remains at the very centre of Marxist thought. It is no appendage to it. If I am citing him correctly, Luporini said that “the objective pole is not Marxism’s only concern.” Sartre’s discourse has been very productive for me, both in terms of the points of view that he proposed and the stimulating character of his intervention.

I would now like to lay emphasis on the problem of art — a question that I think is part of the problem of subjectivity. I will say it frankly: it seems to me that this problem has been neglected and very little examined in recent Marxist studies. There is no satisfactory doctrine or in-depth theory of art elaborated on the basis of Marxist precepts. This is, certainly, a lacuna, since such a theory is essential.

The fact of having a satisfactory doctrine of this kind — or not having one — is a criterion for art itself, because for a system to be able to explain and understand art is a proof of its validity and completeness. If the system is not up to the task of providing one, then that reveals a lacuna, which then affects all other sectors, speaking to a true lack of in-depth analysis, and in particular with regard to the problem that we are discussing at the moment — the problem of subjectivity. To go back to what Sartre has said, I would like to start precisely with an objection, which at bottom is not truly an objection — or, if we have to say that this is an objection, then it has but one goal, which is to provoke a response on his part, or, at least, to initiate a certain order of discourse.

During his presentation, I was struck by the fact that he presented us with the example of the communist worker who feels a very strong antipathy when he is faced with a Jewish comrade. At a given moment, the worker comes to be conscious of the fact that he is anti-Semitic. This consciousness, Sartre tells us, is in itself something useful, because it helps him to transcend the contradiction that persisted within him, thus setting off a conflict between his being-communist and his being unconsciously anti-Semitic. Evidently, in order for him to be consistent, he has to eliminate the anti-Semitism that he has thus recognised.

However, then I got the feeling that Sartre does not always consider coming-to-consciousness of one’s subjectivity to be a positive thing. I asked him about this in the course of a private discussion we had, and he confirmed this feeling. He told me, for example, that for certain works of art, and even for works of art in general, for the artist to be absolutely conscious of his own subjectivity can be useful, and yet this does not mean that he cannot also benefit from a certain degree of unconsciousness of his own subjectivity. And I have to say, frankly, this leaves me rather doubtful.

Indeed, he confirmed this argument yesterday in passing, when he was talking about Madame Bovary, and maintained that this novel simultaneously expressed both a representation of provincial France in a particular era, and Flaubert’s own unconscious — in large part unconscious — projection onto Madame Bovary and that whole environment. He seemed to want to give this unconsciousness a positive value, which raised my doubts.

I would instead ask whether art has not always been a becoming-conscious of one’s own subjectivity, but a becoming-conscious that reconstructs its history, the manner by which we arrive at objectivity. At a certain moment, subjectivity projects itself into objectivity, all the while maintaining a preponderant role that the artist must watch, study and constantly take consciousness of.

Let us consider the example of this now-famous unconsciously anti-Semitic worker. Suppose that this worker wrote a book, that he suddenly became an artist, and that this book was anti-Semitic in character. Would the fact that this book was unconsciously but effectively anti-Semitic diminish its value as a work of art, or not? I think that it certainly would. If that were not the case, then we would have to admit that the negativity of this book is external to art, that is, that this book could be artistically marvellous at the same time as being hateful for other reasons, from a moral point of view, in the measure that its judgements would surely earn our disapproval.

I, for my part, believe that the weakness of this book would also be an artistic one, and that this unconsciousness would also translate into artistic weakness. We cannot reply by saying that in the past there were a lot of works of art in which unconsciousness played a remarkable role, and that this unconsciousness was, in a certain sense, beneficial. But I don’t know; and I’d like to leave this debate open, since by no means is this the question that we’re posed.

Indeed, I think that art is today undergoing developments that are bringing it towards an ever greater degree of consciousness, to the point that the artist is ever less able to free himself of this. In this sense, I very much appreciated what Sartre told us when he said that subjectivity is increasingly absorbed by objectivity, without this however eliminating it. The development of art and of subjectivity tends towards an ever-more pronounced absorption by objectivity, whereby subjectivity changes in nature, in state, without at all being diminished or destroyed.

It seems to me that, so far as the artist is concerned, this marks an ever more clearly asserted demand for truth and an ever more pronounced refusal of any form of unconsciousness. For me, objectivation — what we call objectivation in art — preserves and even validates subjectivity: objectivity is truly something that provides foundations for subjectivity and which, therefore, validates it, in providing it with new value. For me, art is a subjectivity that knows itself and constantly inserts itself into objectivity.

Sartre addressed other points, too. He told us that subjectivity can be transcended by the response that we give to a determinate situation, and I think that this is also correct. Subjectivity is, indeed, transcended in the response that we give to a determinate situation; but in the case of a work of art, art is not only the response that we give, but also the history of our response, and, consequently, subjectivity plays a preponderant role therein. In a certain sense, I would say that the plant is pulled up together with all its roots.

I found the concept of totalisation very interesting, and in particular that of continuous retotalisation, which is a very fertile concept, because totalisation, retotalisation, is the artist’s continuous movement. In art, we feel that expression must be total and that all that exists in reality must be expressed: all that exists in reality must not be denied, but, on the contrary, be expressed. Then, he very clearly brought to light the continuous movement between subjectivity and objectivity, this movement that I think every artist must know. The prolonged debate — particularly in the field of journalism — with regard to the distinction between inner man and social man is a theme that we have to move away from: subjectivity projects itself into social man and sociality is interiorised within subjectivity, in a continuous movement. I would go so far as to say that a pure and abstract subjectivity does not exist, and could not exist. I would like to hear about the experiences of each and every artist: I have one here in front of me [Piovene is here addressing Renato Gattuso, who speaks next] and I hope we will hear from him after me.

I ask myself if, for example, our Gattuso has ever in his life painted a picture for the sake of the picture itself: no one has ever painted a picture for the sake of the picture itself, and no one has ever written a line for the sake of the line itself.

We all sense that in the practice of a work of art, at the most subjective moment of the work of art, this subjectivity is already dialogic. We work to realise a determinate society. All our work — even the most intimate — which we call “subjective,” is social, in a certain sense. It is always a matter of the interiorisation of sociality, or indeed the socialisation of interiority. So that was what I wanted to say — those were the points that I wanted briefly to bring to light. And I would like to add a couple of words on what Luporini said yesterday. He spoke to me in private of his desire to go deeper into what he was saying to us, particularly in the sense of a theory of art. The elaboration of such a theory would be of very great importance, for the reasons that I have presented. I strongly hope that he goes ahead with this.

SARTRE: I am rather embarrassed to respond. I share your opinion, on the points that you have presented here. I would simply like to take this as a pretext to go back and delve deeper into the idea of subjectivity. You said that sociality deeply penetrates subjectivity and that an abstract subjectivity would be meaningless; that it could not exist. I am wholly of the same opinion as you. In the sense that, for me, subjectivity is interiorisation and retotalisation, that is to say, fundamentally (and here I’ll again use rather vaguer and, at the same time, more familiar terms): you live; subjectivity is to live your own being, and to live what you are in a society — because we know no other state of man, he is precisely a social being, a social being who, at the same time, lives the whole of society from his own point of view. I think that any individual, or any group, or any ensemble, is an incarnation of the total society, since they have to live what they are. Moreover, it is only because we can conceive the dialectical play of an enveloping totalisation — that is, a condensing totalisation, which I call incarnation — that each individual is, in a certain manner, the total representation of her epoch; it is only for this reason that we can conceive a true social dialectic. In these conditions, then, I think that this social subjectivity is the very definition of subjectivity. Subjectivity at the social level is a social subjectivity.

What does this mean? It means that everything that makes an individual, all her projections, her acts, and also everything to which she is subject, only reflects — but not in a certain Marxist tradition’s scholastic sense of the word “reflect” — only incarnates, if you prefer, the society itself. That is how Flaubert wrote Madame Bovary! What did he do? On the one hand, he wanted to give an objective description of a certain environment, the world of the French countryside around 1850, with its transformations, the appearance of the doctor replacing the health officer, the rise of a nonbeliever petty bourgeoisie, etc. He wanted to describe all these things, of which he was fully conscious. But at the same time, what was the man who wrote that, himself? Nothing other than the incarnation of all these things. In reality, he was himself the son of a doctor, the son of a doctor who had come from the countryside; he himself lived in the countryside, in Croissé, which is far outside Rouen; he had links to landed interests; he did not concern himself with investing in industry as did many people at the time . . . he was exactly what he was describing. He even went further, because to the extent that he was a rentier, a victim of his family, remaining in his family, dominated first by his father and then by his mother in a situation very much resembling that of the women of the time, he projected his own being onto his book’s heroine. To put it another way, this book has two structures, ultimately referring back to one same one, since you can only totalise the social being that you are, and, at the same time, you describe the society that you see. The particularly interesting thing in Flaubert’s case is not some extraordinary or uncommon sensibility of his — transformed by his vices or by a particularly sinister childhood — but a real life of the epoch, which projects itself, in a subjective form, into a book that claims to describe the epoch objectively. And it is precisely this contradiction and, at the same time, this overdetermination, that constitutes the beauty of his work, because instead of only dealing with people outside of him, there is a whole interiorisation of Flaubert himself, which we can feel from the outset and which we then go on to discover. The story of Madame Bovary is a curious one, and that is why I take it into consideration, in the sense that in 1850 this was considered the book — the “Cromwell,” if you will — of realism. Flaubert was the realist. Well, we know that, in reality, he was not a realist. He chose this subject in order to bring out aspects of himself that he had been unable to give account of in The Temptation of Saint Anthony, and so he wanted to situate this story in a real world, but with a whole crowd of things that were part of him. His readers little by little came to learn that this supposedly realist book in fact had two dimensions. So the first was a true, real description of a small provincial town in France, and the second was the description of a man, a more or less conscious description, projected into this first description. We learned that bit by bit — we knew it — and that is why I am going to return for a little to the question of knowing and not-knowing. We learned that Flaubert was perfectly conscious of this, saying “Madame Bovary, c’est moi”; so he knew very well what he was doing.

The only thing is — and this is not to disagree with you; but I do want to complete my thinking with regard to what you said — Flaubert knew what he was doing, but he did not know it at the moment when he was writing. He knew it when he reflected on what he was doing, but he had never thought “I am going to depict myself in Madame Bovary.” If he had said that, then he would have given a bad depiction of himself. I think that this was, rather, a subsequent reflection — whether he did it during his work writing the book, but at moments when he was reflecting on his work, or else afterward, since the comment comes after the book. But, in any case, it is very clear that he never had the deliberate intention of depicting himself in Madame Bovary. What he wanted to do was simply to depict a certain number of ideas that he had, which had not been synthesised properly in The Temptation of Saint Anthony, and which he took up in another form. So here we have three things — and it’s this, I think, that makes for a true novel: an objective depiction; the same objectivity, no longer as depiction but relived in a subjectivity that projects itself, thus constituting this work as well as an identity of subjective and objective, in the sense that both relate to the same thing: the development of France in a certain era. An epoch captured simultaneously in the eyes of the now-departing health officer Charles Bovary, or those of Monsieur Homais, and also by way of Flaubert himself, feeling conflicts within himself that he projects onto it. Take the example of his hatred for Homais — which is hatred for his own father, whom he loved too much and who pushed him away; a hatred for science that is also a love for science; a very complicated mix that is Flaubert. So he presents Homais, Bovary, the priest, the Abbé Bournisien, etc. in an outwardly objective form, but in reality it is very impassioned. He reproaches the cleric Bournisien for not having provided him the keys to having faith — though he did want to believe — and at the same time reproaches the surgeon Homais, a degraded image of his own father, for having only poor scientific knowledge that risks inhibiting mystical ecstasy but without providing any solution to it. All of this was Flaubert himself, and at the same time, it was the real situation, since this was the epoch in which there was a great swell of de-Christianisation in France, which, starting from the Jacobins, spread across the petty bourgeoisie. But this also relates back to Flaubert, producing two forms — and it is necessary that both exist. There needs to be a kind of dense obscurity [épaisseur obscure], which is the manner by which you understand yourself. The book has to relate back to both these things.

If I went to Patagonia on an assignment, and then I wrote a novel on the mores of the Patagonians, I would produce a relatively objective book full of information gathered during my journey. However, it would be a very bad book, unless I produced a sort of poem putting myself in the Patagonians’ place. But in that case the Patagonians would disappear, and there is not in truth enough relation between the Patagonians and me such that I could project myself. If, conversely, I wrote a novel on everything around me, the novel would be myself, as a projection, and, at the same time, everything around me; besides, I am myself everything that is around me. Indeed, here we again arrive at a practical retotalisation, the same as that which we find everywhere. That is why the strictly objective novel is, in my view, a thing of no value. There has to be this kind of condensation, the author’s obscurity to himself, which can go back from there to his situation, as a totalisation. Without the author’s obscurity to himself, we would get a book like they often had in the socialist countries at a certain moment: a writer sets himself up in a factory for a few weeks, comes back and then recounts what happened in the factory. He does not put himself into it or project himself onto it, because he knows that he is not truly a worker — he is a socialist writer, but not a worker — and nor is he putting other people into it, since he does not know them well enough; so what we get is a bad book.

I just wanted to point to what Gide called “the Devil’s part” in the book: there can be no good book without subjectivity. Evidently there needs to be a depiction of society, in the measure that man is in it — but what really expresses the situation is the fact that he is and that he is within it. In reality, this is what we all are: people who know in the same measure as we project ourselves. There is no difference between the attitude of the poet — or rather, of the novelist — and the ordinary attitude in our lives. In practice, we capture the social by projecting ourselves onto it, but, moreover, by projecting this social itself onto it, such as we retotalise it. There is this kind of permanent envelopment and incarnation, which we need to take into consideration. So, can we really govern our subjectivity? I understand that you want subjectivity to appear more and more clearly, precisely in the name of truth, as it is certain that truth is one of the elements of art. I say ‘one of the elements’ because this only a matter of the truth internal to aesthetic schemas, aesthetic values, and not of pure truth. Moreover, when it comes to truth, a set of statistical data and dialectical reflections on a given social environment will always contain more objective truth than does a novel on these people. And if a novel is truer, it is truer precisely to the degree that it adds subjectivity, the subjectivity of whoever is depicting this social environment, and who in depicting it puts himself into it. But if it is true that we can better know our subjectivity, that does not mean that we could define the portion of ourselves that we put into the book; rather, it means that we are ever more reflective in relation to the immediate subjectivity that we are.

As I was telling you yesterday, the worker who says, "It’s true that I am anti-Semitic” could, in his reflection, very well become complicit in this bourgeois ideology that has been inculcated into him, and it may well be that rather than saying ‘this is not compatible with my activity as a militant, and so I will get rid of this anti-Semitism,” he will maintain, “I am anti-Semitic, and that’s fine. It’s the communists who are wrong; Jews are indeed this and that.” And, without doubt, at the moment that we produce some work, at a certain level we can increasingly see ourselves as the object of subjectivity; and if this subjectivity is necessary to the work, we find it within reflection itself. So we can clarify that much, but then this subjectivity resumes on other terrains; even if we know it as an object, we find it again in an unknown, unseen form, because it is in the very principle of acting [agissante] subjectivity that it is unknown and unseen; and in the measure that the artist is projecting, he does not know himself, even if otherwise he does know himself very well. When Flaubert was writing his book, he was thinking about Madame Bovary, and when he ascribed her a certain number of reactions, he thought that these were the reactions that this woman would have; and then afterwards, reflecting on what he had written, it occurred to him that he would have had the same reactions — that he had ascribed his own reactions to her. So here, we again find the interplay that we mentioned earlier, and I think that it is impossible to conceive of art if not as the point where the subjective and the objective meet. That is more or less what I wanted to say in response, but I don’t think that we are very much in disagreement on that point.

A VOICE: It is not out of some prior volition; it is a consciousness that we grasp during the work itself.

SARTRE: Yes, during the work, all of a sudden, that’s it.

A VOICE: If you’ll allow me, there is perhaps another thing to look into here: the life of the provincial town, of Flaubert, his father, his brother, the college, the doctor, etc. We might say that this is within Flaubert, as something that he preserves within himself, in its obscurity and in the denseness of its obscurity. So we have the proof that the thing that we call the unconscious is the exterior that is to be found within myself. Do you agree?

SARTRE: Exactly. That is what I wanted to say. It is the exterior: it is society itself. I think the society by recognising it outside of me, and I project myself, that is, I project it onto itself. At bottom, if you will, here are two different levels that are bound up with one another, two socialities; and it is the same sociality, it is the same conditioning.

A VOICE: The important thing is that we can work on that basis, analysing the word “unconscious” in a different form.

SARTRE: I said not-knowing, in general, of reality.

A VOICE: Yes, yes, rightly so, but it’s the reality of the objectivity that I preserve within me, it’s not something intelligible: that is the point. Don’t you agree?

SARTRE: I entirely agree.

ALICATA: I agree on the fact that art does not exist without this subjectivity-objectivity relation. I believe that this is nothing foreign to Marxism. But I would like to make a small objection, in order to advance the discussion a little: does this relation also apply to poetic discourse? And how does it apply to historical discourse? I think that yesterday we even went so far as to say that this subjectivity-objectivity relation also applies, to a certain extent, to scientific discourse. That said, we have not yet defined what poetic discourse is — when, in a determinate subjectivity-objectivity relation, we can say: here, we have a poetic discourse. In sum, I think that we have made only the first step. But in what manner is this problem realised? Is this subjectivity-objectivity relation characteristic of art?

BANDINELLI: Do you have something to say?

SARTRE: No, but I think that does have to be the object of the question.

A VOICE (PACI?): Allow me to speak from my point of view. I understand what you [addressing himself to an interlocutor elsewhere in the room] mean. If this schema, or this praxis of interiorisation and exteriorisation applies to no matter what field, that is because at a certain moment it applies either as an aesthetic, or pictorial, or musical expression, which, from this point of view, gives it its specificity. But this is a discourse that neither you nor I would grasp in the same way as a Crocean, for example, who would attribute art a determinate form of space. That is not to say that Croce is not important, but a solution thus conceived is too easy.

To arrive at a more profound answer, we have to pose the problem of my incarnation, of the image, of meaning and of matter – isn’t that the case? I can interiorise a social world that is also a historical world; the past, my history and the history of the world where I live. But in the externalisation, when I express it in not doing all the other things that are not art, I am doing a very specific work: one that first and foremost concerns language, already-constituted language — or the already-constituted language of the arts — as well as my contact with the material. So if we are talking about a painter, then this comes from his feeling for his material, and also of his degradation into material, since he himself becomes colour. In his example, Sartre spoke of Flaubert, but he pointed out that Flaubert’s style also flows from that. You did not say that, but that’s how it is.

There is also a reason why Flaubert was a writer and not a politician: he could express himself, externalise himself, only as a writer. At a certain moment, he said: “I have plenty of things to do other than loving myself more than my father and my brother.” His father was a doctor, his brother the ideal son who studied at the same college as his father had. So at a certain moment came Flaubert’s rebellion against his family, which was also his rebellion against this petty bourgeoisie that had made him and which he preserved within himself. From a genetic point of view, we see that in him, this rebellion expressed itself in literature, and not by other means. So this rebellion had to converge with the language of the era, the writing style of the era, and also Flaubert’s own singular manner of writing.

SARTRE: It is like someone who rebels against activity. Not all artists are the same, fortunately, but that was true in his case . . .

A VOICE: Absolutely.

SARTRE: . . . and he claimed that by writing he was producing science. He said ‘I have a surgeon’s view’; but in reality what we have in Flaubert is literature against science. There is no doubt — it’s against a certain method of science, his father’s.

A VOICE: That is related to his epoch and his society.

SARTRE: He chose that it should be like that. To repeat, that is not always the case, but that is what he did.

A VOICE: I’ll conclude. Alicata, in an analysis of this kind the problem that you pose does exist, but I think that it is extremely difficult. Rather than pick out the subjectivity-objectivity relation in art, in science, in morality, etc., as you said, what we need to do is take the road that explains the universality of the singular incarnation, through a regressive method.

SARTRE: There are some ordinary books that portray this fiction, and socialist books of a particular aesthetic value; in Poland, for example, books were written to describe the whole 1945–52 period after the fact, but, at the same time, they were also justifications of the authors themselves. I am particularly thinking of La Défense de Grenade [1956] by [Kazimierz] Brandys [1916–2000]. He is an extremely curious figure, because in a certain sense he was fully attached to the regime, such as it was at the time, and his novels were narrowly realist, socialist books in which he did not portray himself. He then started to follow another tendency: he passed judgement on himself. But at the same time as he passed judgement on himself, he did not want to disavow himself entirely. He wanted to show the errors and the failures, and simultaneously to maintain a sort of link, a continuity in conflict with change, saying, “Ah, well, yes, there were errors, it wasn’t possible to do any differently.” And he recounted this objectively. Again, take The Mother of Kings [1957], a novel in which he objectively recounted this period. But at the same time as he recounted it objectively, it is also clear that he himself is the hero; and that’s the same thing, isn’t it? At the level of a single writer, we see a development and an attempt at justification, self-critique and justification, but without his character ever appearing; and, at the same time, we see a set of characters who are captured objectively, and in whom we see this ensemble of errors, necessity and good will; derailed good will. Which means that here we are dealing with what I would call a socialist post-realist type of novel, in the sense that there is a lot more in it than the simple description of a society. It is not like when Balzac talked about the French Revolution, which was not his own work and which he only knew by way of the documents. [Brandys] is a man who truly did this, and recounts what people did. Yes, he is still recounting it with the objective methods of the socialist-realist novel, but at the same time he depicts himself within it. Which means that there is a subtlety to his analyses — and that relates to him wanting to show that he was wrong in being right; he wants to produce an auto-critique, but nonetheless this auto-critique does not “liquidate” him as a character. Taking that as its basis, this is a remarkable novel; the author penetrates all the more deeply into the consciousness of his characters because he is himself one of them — isn’t that the case? Anyway, this is something very important; it is a fact that none of us, for example, could write a true story of the life of a Pole or a Russian between 1945 and 1952. They had an extraordinary experience, this construction of socialism with all its deviations, its errors, the whole ensemble of things that went on there, and those of us who saw it only from the outside — even if we belonged to Left groups that were linked to this experience — could not describe it. It’s up to them to produce today’s novel. And why is it up to them? Because they were the ones who experienced it. So you see that here we find subjectivity again, in full. We can dream of sending a writer into a factory, of having him stay there for two years. But none of us would dare to write a novel on the period from 1945 to 1952 in Poland, Hungary, Russia — no one, isn’t that right? — because it would have to be done by the people who experienced that. So, then, the simple fact that we recognise this proves the importance of subjectivity as retotalisation.

A VOICE: Piovene said the same thing yesterday evening . . .

PIOVENE: What I meant is that, for me, subjectivity has a preponderant role in the work of art. When you were speaking, it occurred to me that what you called obscurity-to-the-self is declining in art today, despite everything.


PIOVENE: That is the point that I wanted to emphasise. This obscurity is in decline, despite everything. I believe that the artist always has more than one vision, in capturing the reasons for this vision. However, I don’t think that you can be obscure to yourself at will, and I think that this element of obscurity, of productive obscurity — let’s say — plays an ever smaller part.

SARTRE: The novel is invention.

A VOICE: That’s it. I think that if Flaubert were writing today, he would manage to depict himself by more direct means; he would choose less long a road. I am not saying that Madame Bovary is not a masterpiece — clearly it is. And I’m also thinking of something else that’s very important, namely that today, even in art, it is important to arrive at a correct conclusion.

SARTRE: I’m perfectly in agreement with you.

A VOICE: You can’t feel that you’re a liar. Probably for an artist in the past that was less important.

SARTRE: Then, too, it was very important. Flaubert’s book is very true, it arrives at accurate conclusions. Thibaudet has shown that Flaubert foresaw the development of the petty bourgeoisie in France, its importance to political life under the Third Republic. All that is already there in what he wrote under the Empire. But I agree with you, with the caveat that I think that in any case the subjective retotalisation does take place — at another level, but it exists even so.

A VOICE: In fact, if it did not exist, we would have no identity.

SARTRE: Or there would be a copy of yourself, an object that you would project, and that would be a bad thing.

BANDINELLI: Excuse me, I do not know if it’s your [Della Volpe’s] turn to speak or Luporini’s.

LUPORINI§: I would rather speak first, for the following reason: Della Volpe has an aesthetic. I don’t. It’s better that whoever doesn’t have one speaks first, as then we will end up with more complete answers.

BANDINELLI: Perfect reasoning!

LUPORINI: I asked to speak because I think that I will more be following the line of observation that Alicata indicated more than did those who’ve gone before me. I think that his position poses Sartre’s with the greatest difficulties. I say “difficulties” precisely because I have no aesthetic; I have problems, I have questions, perhaps because Marxism has not provided itself an orthodox aesthetic. It could be that it depends on this lack of aesthetic. In any case, I have only questions. So first I would like to pose a general problem, which concerns what I call — in translation — the “subject forgetting itself” [il dimenticarsi del soggetto]. This is a fact that we always find in subjects’ “operations.” And Sartre was fully in agreement, I think, when he spoke about the man going down the stairs . . . In any operation, the subject does not think about the operation that he is accomplishing, but clearly he is thinking about the goal that he is aiming at. So the problem is to capture the subject within a determinate field: in the first place, I would say, in the field of knowledge in general. By that I mean historical knowledge, scientific knowledge and art. I believe that this element of “dense obscurity” — this backdrop that the subject stands out from — is present in all these fields: it is present in the artist, in the scholar . . .

A VOICE: Sartre didn’t say otherwise . . .

LUPORINI: . . . allow me to retrace the path that led me to these difficulties. I’m a bit of a pedant, so I have to follow a certain order. So this “dense obscurity” is always present in operation, in the operation that is knowledge, be it scientific or historiographical. It is an artistic backdrop, which is still present in subjectivity.

For the present moment, I just want to invoke a certain experience, which isn’t my own, but my wife’s. I have followed it with a certain interest for a number of years. I would have preferred her to speak about it herself, but she did not want to. She worked on editing the oeuvre that you were all talking about yesterday evening. And editing Tolstoy’s oeuvre means studying the process by which his novels take form, and Tolstoy’s narrative form, by way of both their different variants and all that he said across the years of his work. Now, we can see that here there is a continual reflection on the self; it does not come afterward, but in the work process itself. So Tolstoy was perfectly conscious of two things: he was conscious that he was describing an objective world, and, at the same time, that he was continually describing himself. That is, he saw himself in each of his characters, not only the male ones but also in Natasha [Rostova, a character in War and Peace] etc. Which we could also prove philologically. So we could say that Tolstoy is more modern than Flaubert — and he may well also be [more modern] by the standard of a certain measure of values. But there is no doubt, thanks to philology and studies of the texts, that this consciousness is permanently present in Tolstoy — a consciousness that is simultaneously an objectivation of the two moments. I think that this objectivation helped Tolstoy: it was characteristic of him as an author and constituted the greatness of his art.

Now I get to the objection that Alicata raised: the question of art is posed starting from this point of arrival. If we agree that art is knowledge, the major problem then is to determine to what genre of knowledge art belongs. For example, if we again look to Tolstoy and this experience that I found so captivating as I followed it, then we can see that in his particular case, all of Tolstoy’s characters emerged from real prototypes, from characters whom he had really met or, let’s say, elements of characters that he freely mixed together. But it’s not only that — that would be too elementary. Tolstoy began writing, describing and giving form to the things that interested him, by way of a style that we could characterise as naturalist, with an absolute wealth of details and supplementary aspects. The process of constituting the character consists of taking away all these minute details and creating what we could call an “idealisation.” This is where the aesthete’s discourse begins. Tolstoy was conscious of that. It was as if he were saying, “Note: when I am writing a historical novel my goal is different to a historian’s, because when I produce a description the historical character is not the same one that the historian is interested in. The historian captures the character in his historical significance, whereas I capture him in all the interlacing of real life, like other men.” So when it comes to this process of “denaturalising” the realist prototype, could we not pose the question to which I’ll return — which I’ll conclude by posing, and which I do not feel up to the task of answering. For it seems to me that this is the fundamental question: to what genre of knowledge does art belong, and in what sense is it different from other genres of knowledge?

SARTRE: I will respond afterwards.


* Guido Piovene (1907–1974), writer and journalist at Corriere della Sera and La Stampa. His major works include Lettere di una novizia (1941) and Viaggio in Italia (1956). 

Mario Alicata (
191866) was an important leader of the PCI, having joined the clandestine Communist Party in 1940, the same year that he defended his thesis Vincenzo Gravina e l’estetica del primo Settecento. He participated in the anti-fascist resistance in Rome and worked as a literary critic and journalist; as a Party leader he was very attentive to cultural questions. A complete bibliography of his writings from 1937 to 1966 appears in R. Martinelli and R. Maini, eds, Intellettuali e azione politica, Roma: Riuniti, 1976, pp. 463503

‡ Bianchi Bandinelli (19001975), archaeologist and art historian, specialist in classical art; a Siena aristocrat and antifascist who became a Communist after the war. His works include Quelques jours avec Hitler et Mussolini, Paris: Carnets-Nord, 2011, an account of Hitler’s 1938 visit to Mussolini’s Italy in 1938 excerpted from his Dal diario di un borghese, published in 1948. Bandinelli had been seconded to serve as a guide to Hitler and Mussolini during their visits to the monuments and museums of Rome and Florence. 

§ Cesare Luporini (1909–1993) taught the history of philosophy at the Universities of Cagliari, Pisa, and Florence until 1984. Having initially been of an existentialist bent, he then turned to Marxism and was a member of the PCI from 1943 until 1991. He was an elected senator from 1958 to 1963 in the third legislature of the Italian Republic. He opposed the transformation of the PCI into the PDS (Partito Democratico della Sinistra) and instead sided with Rifondazione Comunista. His Marxism was founded on a critique of historicism, rejecting economistic Marxist dogmatism. Among his most important works was Dialettica e materialismo (1974). 

Excerpted from What is Subjectivity?

Read part two here.